The miracle of KDOC-Channel 56’s “NewsWatch,” Orange County’s first locally produced, commercial, 30-minute nightly news telecast, was that its debut Monday was virtually indistinguishable from broadcasts by the major independent stations in the Los Angeles area.
Co-anchors Michelle Merker and Pat Matthews did a more than respectable job, with only a few small technical glitches and a couple of minor flubs by Matthews.
“We came through pretty much unscathed,” Merker said when it was over. “We’re pleased.”
Of course, being as good as the area’s independent stations may say as much about the quality of local news on non-network affiliates as it does about the low-budget effort by the county’s only commercial station.
Indeed, the show was basically a package of international, national and Los Angeles news purchased from CNN, supplemented Monday night by two Orange County stories, both reported by “NewsWatch’s” lone field reporter, Eric Alverez.
But the modesty of the on-screen result should not obscure the magnitude of the accomplishment. KDOC has what station officials acknowledge is a minuscule budget for a local news operation in a major metropolitan area, according to Hoshang Moaddeli, the show’s executive producer and operations director the Anaheim-based station.
On Monday night, the first of the local stories dealt with plans to widen the Santa Ana Freeway in the county; it did not appear until 10 minutes into the broadcast. The second, a feature near the end of the show, was on the spread of fax machines. It quoted one local expert that there are now more than 200 public facsimile machines in the county.
There also were some nice, small touches. When the weather forecast went up on the screen, Orange County was listed first, followed by Los Angeles and Riverside. General manager Calvin Brack closed out the half-hour with an editorial applauding the city of Santa Ana’s effort to clean up prostitution on Harbor Boulevard.
“News is the hardest thing you can put on the air,” Moaddeli said. “I’m really proud of everybody. I wanted it to be clean and with a good rhythm. We’re going to get better every night.”
In large measure, Moaddeli is the godfather of “NewsWatch.” Throughout the broadcast, the 22-year veteran of television stood nervously in the cramped control booth, in front of a large monitor, occasionally calling out instructions to the young technical crew.
Poised and self-possessed, 27-year-old Merker is clearly destined for bigger things in broadcast news. In addition to being co-anchor, she holds the title of news director, with responsibilities for shaping the broadcast through the day. She further functions as Alverez’s assignment editor.
Since she graduated from Saddleback College in 1983, the Orange County native has worked for KDOC, writing and delivering 2-minute “news updates” (she confesses that it had been frustrating, essentially a matter of doing headline “teasers” for a news broadcast that did not exist) and producing a live, half-hour, viewer call-in show entitled “Sound Off” once a week.
Matthews, 36, is a late substitution to the team, hired after a previously announced co-anchor took a job with a cable network. He came to “NewsWatch” from KWIZ-AM radio, where he was program director. Before that, he worked in both radio and television in New Orleans.
As the moments ticked off before the show went on the air, dinner came in from Carl’s Jr., and both co-anchors focused on sartorial concerns. Merker worried aloud that the sleeves of her blouse were too long. Matthews asked for some masking tape to anchor his microphone cord to the back of his tie.
There had been little of the hype, hoopla or hyperbole one associates with changes in local television news. The absence of self-promotion, Moaddeli said, was more a matter of strategy than taste--almost all the money he had available was on the screen.
Alverez, 30, travels to stories in a van with a technician who handles both the camera and sound. The pair cannot broadcast live from the van and are connected to the station by nothing more high-tech than a phone beeper.
In the cramped office that Merker, Matthews and Alverez share, pecking out stories on electric typewriters, there is a single wire machine--UPI. The station does not subscribe to City News Service, which lists all local news events and breaking stories in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The set in the small “NewsWatch” studio was designed and built by station personnel for less than $10,000.
The limitations of this set-up were obvious Monday night. For one thing, Alverez had to stand near the anchor desk because there is room for only two chairs at the panel.
On their own 10 o’clock broadcast, Fox Channel 11 News went live to the city of Orange to cover a meeting of 400 anti-abortion activists at a Roman Catholic Church. For the foreseeable future, that sort of live coverage will be beyond “NewsWatch.” For weeks, in fact, Alverez has been out with his camera operator, collecting “stock shots” of Orange County to use in future reports: the airport, beaches, traffic jams, Disneyland, smog and rain.
All that notwithstanding, “NewsWatch,” which has a total crew of 15, represents a considerable gamble for KDOC, a low-rated UHF station whose schedule is dominated by sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s. To make room for “NewsWatch,” “The Fugitive” has been cut back from its 10 p.m. nightly slot to once a week on Saturdays.
Heretofore, KDOC has been best known for the odd couple of Wally George, its notorious talk show host, and Pat Boone, its president and part owner. The station could use a winner, both for its ratings, which have been anemic, and for its image. In the past several years, the station has been beset with charges and litigation involving sexual harassment and inflated ratings claims.
Moaddeli said that KDOC has made a definite, open-ended commitment to the “NewsWatch” effort. Meanwhile, five of the six commercial minutes available for Monday’s broadcast had been sold. Sponsors included several auto dealers and a water supply company.
Larger numbers from ratings services like Arbitron, if they materialize, would translate into more commercials at higher rates. More income, in turn, would enable the station to invest in personnel and better technology, all of which could translate into a more sophisticated product.
For now, KDOC has been careful in its scheduling of “NewsWatch.” It follows “Racing From Santa Anita"--the station’s highest-rated program--and for viewers looking for news, it has no competition in the entire Los Angeles market, even from CNN itself, which offers sports from 8.30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
On Monday nights, real news junkies who finish “NightWatch” can then switch to Channel 9 for more local news or, if they prefer a fictional format, to KCBS, Channel 2, for “Murphy Brown,” which is set in a Washington, D.C., station. Or, they can stay with Channel 56 and catch the old Mary Tyler Moore show, set in a Minneapolis television station with a considerably larger operation than “NewsWatch.”
“From our newsroom to their newsroom,” says Merker with a laugh.
“NewsWatch” is on Monday through Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on KDOC, Channel 56, and also can be seen on cable systems throughout Orange County and the Los Angeles area.